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A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  1,591 ratings  ·  262 reviews
In this remarkable work of fiction, astrophysicist Janna Levin reimagines the lives of two of the most important and influential minds of our time.

The narrator is a scientist herself, a physicist obsessed with Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of many centuries, and with Alan Turing, the extraordinary mathematician, breaker of the Enigma Code during World War II. “They are
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Hardcover, 230 pages
Published August 22nd 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf
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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
I began writing a short story about Alan Turing last year. Despite a lengthy scribbled outline it remains a stunted opening gambit. After reading Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines I really feel far less of a need to finish what I started, because she basically captured what I'd kept confined in my head, off the page. I still might finish it one day, but after reading David Leavitt's beautiful Turing biography (The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Compute ...more
Mike
May 26, 2018 rated it did not like it
This was not a good book, which is a shame because the two scientists it speaks about, Alan Turing and Kurt Godel, are titans of 20th century thinking. Turing was highly influential in the development of computer science (and fought Nazis) while Godel is spoken in the same breathe as Aristotle and contributed some foundational theorems of math and logic. They also had extremely tortured existences (Turing because of his sexuality, Godel for metal health reasons) which would make an exploration o ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Nov 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read2016
This book is required reading in a first year writing seminar that I happen to be the librarian for, so I wanted to give it a try.

I know a lot more about Turing than Gödel or Wittgenstein, but the author does a decent job showing the parallels between the lives of Gödel and Turing, how their thinking intersects, and how each of them was influenced by Wittgenstein. The author herself is also in there occasionally, because she argues it makes no difference where the story begins.

"The world falls
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Matt
I pondered a while what to say about this book until I realized it has its own review right there on the very last page:

1. Gödel, Kurt — Fiction

2. Turing, Alan Mathison, 1912-1954 — Fiction

3. Logicians — Fiction

4. Mathematicians — Fiction

5. Genius — Fiction

6. Philosophy — Fiction

7. Psychological fiction

So, everything is fiction. If this were true, you could just as well get rid of the word and suddenly nothing is fiction any more. I'd say this book works equally well as a work of fiction and non
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Gary
Apr 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
There are several fascinating things about this book. Levin avoids a lot of the mathy-math for the purposes of her narrative, and that was, no doubt, a good choice from a literary point of view. Rather, she presents the math in philosophical terms that are more palatable to the numerically challenged. I'm a logically inclined guy, but the vocabulary and grammar of math loses me just past Geometry or Algebra II. To this day, family members still occasionally chide me for not studying Calculus in ...more
Julia
Mar 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is a strange and fascinating/disturbing book--a work of fiction, but based on the real life stories of the great mathematician, Kurt Godel, and the father of computers, Alan Turing. The author, Janna Levin, is an astrophysicist trained at Cornell--but the writing is that of a mystic. The narrator is never named, but I take him/her to be the persona of Levin, who shares both the genius and madness of the two brilliant, self-destructive men at the center of the work.

All three of them--the tw
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Jonna Higgins-Freese
Jun 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: tried-but-quit
Maria Popova waxed lyrical about it, and I do love historical fiction, especially about science (currently bingeing on all things Andrea Barrett) but I just couldn't get into this. The language was trying to be lyrical, I think, but was instead impenetrable and abstract. ...more
rachel
Jan 01, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If speculative fiction about the lives of persons so unconventionally brilliant (or brilliantly unconventional) that their brains can't sustain sanity is your bag, then you will enjoy this one as much as I did. Alan Turing didn't wash his pants; Kurt Gödel starved himself to death to show that individual human will can override mechanical instinct. The book is little more than a character sketch of their mad genius. It is heavier on narrative than on philosophy, math, or science, to be sure. But ...more
Jafar
Mar 28, 2011 rated it liked it
My second book by the physicist Janna Levin. This one a novel. Levin and I share a morbid fascination with mad and tormented geniuses. By genius I don’t mean those who are just exceptionally brilliant. A lot of gifted people get called genius. But once or twice a century there comes someone like Kurt Gödel who makes other geniuses crap their pants. Einstein said that he bothered going to the office only so that he can talk to Gödel – and he wasn’t bullshitting. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems ar ...more
Chris
Nov 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is most unusual.

Its storytelling is quite minimal as it paints in fast brush strokes the story of two geniuses of the 20th century: Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. Both men never truly fit into their world. Gödel suffered from paranoia and spent time in a sanatorium. Turing was gay and also would have probably been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome today.

They each asked a great question of the 20th. Gödel asked if we can ever truly know for sure if something is truly true? (His answer was ‘
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Scott
Jan 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
I decided to read this book for a second time when it was announced that the movie "The Imitation Game", which was based on the work on Alan Turing, would be released on December 25, 2014.

I bought this book after I saw the author, Jenna Levin, on the Colbert Report. I enjoyed it so much I even bought tickets to see her speak at a Perimeter Institute event held at the Waterloo Collegiate Institute on October 4, 2006. She's a cosmologist and an astrophysicist and she decided to write a book about
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Ian Scuffling
Before reading A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, a novel, I'd read two of Janna Levin's books: one on the history of LIGO, a project that was the first to "detect" gravitational waves via light, and another which is as much astrophysics primer as it is beautiful memoir-qua-epistolary. Her writing in the science community is unlike any other I've encountered. Her prose is poetic and brimming with playful, artful and carefully pored over language. It's a prose of someone who knows how to use lan ...more
Tristan MacAvery
Apr 22, 2011 rated it liked it
I admit defeat. I testify to all and sundry that I am unworthy of completing this novel. Whatever it is that allows someone to plow through the angst, the detail, the writing thicker than insincere compliments in a vat of social climbers, I have it not. I love various passages of description: "The cafe appears in the brain as this delicious, muddy scent first, awaking a memory of the shifting room of mirrors second -- the memory nearly as energetic as the actual sight of the room, which appears ...more
Kristin Pedder
So, I listened to an episode of Radiolab about breaker of the Enigma Code Alan Turing (http://www.radiolab.org/story/193037-...) and heard of this book through that. It turned up in my local Book Grocer store, which is an Australian book outlet that sells discounted books -- often those that have already had their time in other bookstores -- and was chuffed with the coincidence of such a find. Synchronicity is all the more exciting when it comes with a discount.

To say that Janna Levin is a pers
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Britta Böhler
Jan 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
A beautiful novel about the lives of two masterminds of mathematics: Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. The book eloquently portrays their very different, and yet strangely similar lives and at the same time renders an intimate picture of European science and culture before and after WWII. Although the two men never met, there lives and their thinking are deeply connected through the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
(Though not necessary some knowledge of Wittgenstein's philosophcal thinking helps to
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Jlawrence
Jul 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
A striking parallel portrait of the intellectual highs, personal complexities, and deeply saddening ends of these two formidable twentieth century geniuses. The author herself is a professor of physics and astronomy, and the book, fiction but mostly based on fact, explores these two men's thoughts and painful lives via well-chosen and eventually tragic vignettes. ...more
Wart Hill
Jan 31, 2015 marked it as gave-up
Might try it again sometime. Just not feeling it now.
LindaJ^
Sep 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
I am in awe of those who understand mathematics as a language, one that is far more universal and precise than those we speak. Before reading this book, while I had a vague idea of who Kurt Godel was, I did not know why he was important. Now, I know that Gödel's most famous theorem is, at least to this lay person, that mathematics cannot answer every question and that it shook up the world. Alan Turing I knew more about, but only because I saw the movie Enigma and did a bit of research on him af ...more
Bryan
Oct 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I found this a pleasure to read. The author has a delightful way of writing about two giants of the twentieth century, Alan Turing and Kurt Godel. The writing has these surprising descriptive passages and nuanced emotional vignettes that are a joy to come across in and of themselves. I know just the gist of the implications of Turing's and Godel's work, but you wouldn't need to know anything necessarily to enjoy this book. It is so little addressed, that it seems too much to say that it is even ...more
Avinash
May 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
It is frankly surprising that this genre of writing about historical figures isn't more popular. Author Janna levin talks about two geniuses of pre WWII era Kurt Godel and Alan Turing who share not only their brilliance and once in a century contributions to mathematics and logic, but also their delusional and tragic endings. But the author doesn't merely stick to stating well known facts in a sort of book keeping fashion but blends facts with fiction where the reader feels being walked through ...more
Miriam
May 05, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book is the worst of both worlds--biography and fiction. It doesn't go into their theories in much detail, so it's not that much fun for a novice. You're not really going to pick up understanding from this. And it's not a good story, because it's just two guys, living their lives, as she picks out details and tries to pin them together. Like they both saw Snow White and ate apples. Or that they knew of each other's work. Or they had tragic ends. But it's not good fiction, either, because it ...more
Maryam AL_Oraij
Dec 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novel, philosophy, scienes
This world extends beyond this room, Adele. There are the streets of Vienna and beyond that Europe and beyond that a globe in space in orbit around a star in a universe.
But how do I know that for sure? I cannot see the globe spinning on its axis right now as I speak to you. How can I be sure? I can be sure because it's logical; the mathematics is sound and respected by the orbits of the planets. I can verify it's true, not by looking at it, but by thinking about it.
Amazing Janna ()
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Dipanshu Gupta
Jul 22, 2019 rated it liked it
It’s funny to read a ficto-reality book on two of the most interesting topics relevant to contemporary science’s biggest hype - General Artificial Intelligence. It was kind of a fun book to read, but I did not get much out of it. It falls between an entertaining and didactic read.

The prose structure was different and the narrative style was quite fresh. It’s one of those book you would recall later and say, “Ah, I remember reading that book. It’s okay”.
Sydney Doidge
Oct 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019
Generally I liked this book and the concept of it. But I wanted WAY more math! She really didn’t explain their work in detail and why it was important. It focuses more on their isolated and lonely stories, fascinating for sure, but pure conjecture as to their exact thoughts and feelings. Maybe if I had know going in I would’ve liked it better but I thought I would get a much greater understanding of their work than just how tragic Alan Turing and Kurt Godel were.
Luke Spooner
Dec 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
I became aware of this book because Patti Smith recommended it, and she rarely leads me astray, but I was initially pretty disappointed. At first I found the writing wooden and kind of uninspired. Ignorantly, I thought 'this is why scientists shouldn't write fiction'. It really shifts half way through becoming poetic and profound. The passage describing Turing's suicide was predictably heartbreaking but still kind of beautiful. What a fucking crime. ...more
Harsha Kokel
Jul 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recommend
This is a page turner. It is the best science-history fiction I have ever read. Author does a great job narrating parallel lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. The narration is fantastic and consuming. I absolutely loved how she puts herself in the book as well. The way she projects the characters from the book in her 21st century day-to-day experience hits me close to home.
Laurey Steinke
While the descriptions are vivid, and transport one to the time between the World Wars and during World War Two, one wonders at the probity of the visualization of the autistic mind. Not at all sure that the historical characters in the book thought or felt anything like their fictional counterparts, and the pieces don’t hang together very well.
Shad
Feb 01, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really captured my imagination. Hard to put down.
Cj
Sep 06, 2009 rated it liked it
How very, very bleak. And angst! Lots and lots of angst. There is no denying that Kurt and Alan were extremely unfortunate in the hand each were dealt, and that their intellectual gifts came with a high price tag; one I would not be willing to pay. But this fictionalized account is of a grim and joyless existence more in keeping with a gothic romance novel than insight into the lives of two very troubled and, at times, unlucky men.

"In the end, she wasn't able to float free of the weight of the
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Brian
Mar 16, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nerd-stuff, grbpp
(3.0)

Characters and certainly mathematics are thin. We get the highlights of the quirks and personalities of Gödel, Turing and friends but feels artificial, like a stage play or something. Somewhat entertaining. Did not like the two or three pages by the 'narrator' in modern-day New York. Gimmicky, unnecessary. Also not entirely sure I see how the two narratives integrate together.

The one exchange that I really liked in this is when Turing's friend (and secret fiancee, later to be snubbed), Joa
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Janna Levin, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, holds a BA in Physics and Astronomy with a concentration in Philosophy from Barnard College of Columbia University, and a PhD in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her scientific research mainly centers around the Early Universe, Chaos, and Black Holes.

Dr. Levin's first book, "Ho
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